Exploring New Standard with Gray Merchant of Asphodel

Luis Salvatto

Luis Salvatto

Introduction

Hello Planeswalkers from all around the globe! It’s that time again: new set, new mechanics, new cards, and a brand new Standard format to explore. Theros Beyond Death is just around the corner, and I cannot be more excited to try some of the tools this expansion will provide. It doesn’t matter if you are an aggro player at heart, a midrange expert, or a control master, I’m pretty sure you will find amazing options to experiment and deckbuild with in the upcoming weeks.

Gray Merchant of Asphodel

Today, I want to concentrate specifically on one of the few reprints this set brings us, and in my opinion one of the most iconic black creatures that has been printed in the last decade: the all mighty 《Gray Merchant of Asphodel》. Making his first appereance in the original Theros set back in September 2013, this powerfull five drop has been the key feature of various black midrange strategies across different formats.

Being a five mana 2/4 that when it enters the battlefield drains your opponent for an amount equal to your devotion to black, one could argue that the main reason of its success is the flexibility between letting you stabilize against an aggresive strategy, while also functioning as a win condition against slower decks, even letting you sometimes put your opponent down to 0 without bothering with combat, especially when multiple copies are chained together.

The History of 《Gray Merchant of Asphodel》

Standard from the Past

The first black devotion deck that abused the capabilities our Merchant was built, as expected, just as the set was released, as showcased in Kentarou Yamamoto’s Top 8 decklist from Pro Tour Theros in Dublin:

Desecration DemonLifebane ZombieUnderworld ConnectionsWhip of Erebos

Together with other amazing creatures such as 《Desecration Demon》 and 《Lifebane Zombie》 (both of which provide two extra devotion to the table), efficient disruption spells, and some phenomenal card advantage engines in the form of 《Underworld Connections》 and 《Whip of Erebos》 (also having two black mana symbols in their mana costs), it became very clear that working towards growing your devotion to a specific color while also playing good cards was a perfectly achievable task.

ThoughtseizeDoom BladeDevour FleshHero's Downfall

The main game plan of the deck was to play strong removal and discard to slow down your opponent, force them to anwser some of your creatures (that were also capable to get away with the game if left unchecked), and grind while also putting permanents in play, setting up the perfect scenario for your “Grays” to come down and create massive life swings. Whether or not this potent strategy can be replicated in the new Standard format is something that probably tons of magic players and deckbuilders will investigate.

Pauper Influence

Even though 《Gray Merchant of Asphodel》 has been printed as an uncommon in Theros Beyond Death, it was originaly released as a common back in the day, and as with any other common card that seems to have potential, its power was put to the test in the Pauper format. It was no surprise that it proved to be efficient there as well:

Cuombajj WitchesChittering RatsMarshmist Titan

Mono Black Control was already a solid choice in Pauper, and our five drop arrived to only improve it and take it to another level. In conjuntion with other tools like 《Chittering Rats》 and 《Cuombajj Witches》 (cards that this strategy was already playing anyway and count for your black devotion), good removal spells, discards and card draw, this deck functions in a very similar way the Standard deck does, trying to decrease the pace of the game, gaining card advantage, and eventually winning with some huges devotion life drains.

Theros Beyond Death Standard Brewing

Mono Black Devotion

Now that we are aware of how this powerfull five drop has been used with success in recent past, the obvious place for a starting decklist would be Mono Black Devotion. If you are going to build one of this decks, I think you need to maximize the impact that your 《Gray Merchant of Asphodel》 will have in the game when they enter the battlefield, essencially making them your best card, the reason why you are going all in with devotion in the first place:

Tymaret, Chosen from DeathErebos, Bleak-Hearted

This list would be a decent starting point to explore how best to exploit the mechanic. We are trying to put as many black mana symbols into play as possible to enable our finisher, while also having a coherent midrange value gameplan.

Nightmare ShepherdWitch's OvenGray Merchant of Asphodel

Probably the most notable interaction from this list, would be having at least a 《Witch’s Oven》 in play with a 《Nightmare Shepherd》, and casting 《Gray Merchant of Asphodel》. That will ensure that we get at least an eight point life swing, since we can first drain for four, and then sacrifice “Gray” right away to trigger the Sheppard’s ability, exiling the five drop and creating a 1/1 token that will drain our opponent again (remember, creature tokens still keep their mana cost, and therefore count towards your devotion). This is indeed a very strong interaction, and we are only taking into account a scenario were we just have those two creatures out: if we get to double drain our opponent for five or six each time, I imagine it’d be extremely difficult for us to lose the game at that point.

Splash White Version

Another route we can take would be to add white to the deck to abuse other sinergies. Always when adding an extra color to a deck, it is important to evaluate if the ability to play different cards is worth the boost in power level, in contrast with the decrease in mana consistancy, especially in this specific moment in time where the Standard mana bases are not that great. With that in mind, we could explore a 《Command the Dreadhorde》 approach:

Mire TritonWoe Strider

The main focus of this deck would be to trade resources aggresively from the very beggining, and try to keep our life total as high as possible, to ensure that when we hit our sixth land drop, we have enough cards in the graveyard and enough life points to use our 《Command the Dreadhorde》s for full value. Note that most of the spells in the deck give us back that life we lose as soon as they hit the table. 《Mire Triton》 acts as an early play that buys us time while also filling the graveyard. 《Woe Strider》 can sacrifice our full board to help us to find our Command in a key turn, while killing the creatures we want to re-buy to get those enter-the-battlefield triggers right away.

Command the Dreadhorde
Ayara, First of LocthwainCharming PrinceGray Merchant of Asphodel

Imagine a scenario where you manage to revive one 《Ayara, First of Locthwain》, one 《Charming Prince》, and one 《Gray Merchant of Asphodel》 all together, paying ten points of life in the process. Only those three creatures mean your opponent losing a total of 13 life! Playing a creature deck that can focus on defense, efficient resource trading and card advantage, while having the ability to close out the game even without entering combat, is something that cannot be ignored and should be tested.

Conclusion

What are your thoughts on the return of “Gray”? Which devotion decks are you most excited to play with? Which Theros Beyond Death cards have you impressed the most so far?

I want to say thanks to Matias Arvigo (you can find his Twitch Channel here) who helped me with his experience and tips on 《Charming Prince》 + 《Command the Dreadhorde》 decks and I loved the build so I’ll give a try for sure when Theros arrives.

See you all guys in the next one!

Luis Salvatto (Twitter / Twitch)

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Luis Salvatto

Luis Salvatto After breaking onto the scene with a Top8 at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad in 2016, Luis became the first player from Argentina to win a Pro Tour in 2018 at PT Rivals of Ixalan. This feat put him in a position to fight for the Player of the Year title which went down to the wire with a play-off against Seth Manfield. Salvatto emerged victorious and secured the prestigious Player of the Year title and became recognized as one of the best South American players of all time. Selected for the MPL in 2019. Read more articles by Luis Salvatto